Heqing “Amy” Zhang
On the day my first novel was rejected, I was baking pies.
Or rather, I was gathering the necessary stamina for our church’s annual pie sale. Ten hours of rolling crusts and peeling apples and kneading butter and sugar into the crumble topping, all the while drowning in the cinnamon air, surrounded by near-literal mountains of pies that we were forbidden to touch. (It was, I think, our pastor’s method of drilling the meaning of temptation into heads — he always preached about Eden the following Sunday.) I sat on my couch and counted the minutes until the agony of pie-making, (almost) forgetting the novel that was currently with the acquisitions board of one of the biggest publishing houses in the world.
To be fair, I hadn’t known that the acquisitions meeting would be held that day. I did know that two — two! — senior editors wanted to make all of my impossible dreams come true. I knew that the marketing and sales people had already looked over my manuscript — something that usually happened post-contract. I knew the meeting had been pushed back twice already by an unsympathetic hurricane that had left downtown Manhattan under several feet of water. I knew this was it. This had to be it. It was my turn.
I had slogged through the query trenches in search of an agent. I had collected enough rejection letters to wallpaper my room. I had found an agent who hadn’t run away when I finally told her that I was 15, who loved my story almost as much as I did, who submitted it and lured two — two! — senior editors to take a risk on it.
Hello, future? I’m ready for my happily ever after. Love, Amy.
Phone call from my agent. Sweaty palms and dizziness, a tap of a shaking finger to a smudged screen. Small talk and stalling. A sigh and, at last, the news, that the publisher had a similar novel on her list and vetoed the editors. That there was no heat in the flooded building and they had rejected everything and had gone home early. Stomach in throat, swallow. False laugh, assurances of next time. End call. Tears.
Hello, Amy? Sucks, doesn’t it? Love, the future.
It sucked so monumentally that I bought a pie and ate it in one sitting.
It’ll be okay. It’ll be okay. I fell asleep like that: okay, okay, okay, and I almost believed it. After all, the next day was the beginning of National Novel Writing Month. I had an outline and a story to tell: one of imaginary friends, Newton’s Laws of Motion, a car out of control, a crash into a tree.
Okay, okay, okay.
A ringing in the ungodly hours of morning. Phone call from a friend. Bleary eyes and words still spinning: okay, okay, okay. A mumbled what the heck? in place of a greeting, another hurricane in the answer. A classmate, a car out of control, a crash into a tree.
We used to have gym together, I didn’t know him too well, and I never would. Those were the facts — no opinions, no emotions I could translate into ink on a page, touch, understand. The words were gone. I sat at my computer with my fingers on the keys, shaking, sweating, smudging, but there was nothing to say.
Everyone went to the memorial service and everyone brought flowers, and in the silence, we cried. And there was anger, too, later — a bursting, a hush that imploded. I went home after the service and threw my laptop open and wrote about all that was unfair, and there was a lot to write about. The month passed, and I won NaNoWriMo. I revised the novel and sent it to my agent who began the submission process once again.
It sold in three days.
Hello, future? I’m not afraid. Love, Amy.
Severna Park, Md.
Life from Seven Feet Up
Walking down a busy street, I see the quick glances and turned heads. The murmurs and giggles trickle toward me. I try to ignore the buzz, interspersed with, “Oh my God!” and the occasional, “Damn!” Then, a complete stranger asks for a picture, so I stand with people foreign to me and politely smile and laugh. After the click of the camera, they go on their way. Sometimes I wish I weren’t so tall. Maybe then I could take a friend to a movie and just blend into the crowd.
Attention from strangers is nothing new to me. Questions about my height dominate almost every public interaction. My friends say my height is just a physical quality and not a personality trait. However, when I reflect on my life, I realize that my height has shaped my character in many ways and has helped to define the person I am.
I learned how to be comfortable in my own skin. If I had the introverted personality my older brother had in high school, I’d probably be overwhelmed by the constant public attention. Even as a young child, parents at the sidelines of my baseball games, as well as the umpire, would, in front of all my teammates, demand by birth certificate to prove my age. I grew acquainted early on with the fact that I am abnormally tall and stick out about the crowd. It’s just the way it is. Being self-conscious about it would be paralyzing.
I learned how to be kind. When I was younger, some parents in my neighborhood deemed me a bully because I was so much larger than children my age. I had to be extra welcoming and gentle simply to play with other children. Of course, now my coaches wish I weren’t quite so kind on the basketball court.
I learned humility. At 7 feet tall, everyone expects me to be an amazing basketball player. They come expecting to see Dirk Nowitzki, and instead they might see a performance more like Will Ferrell in Semi-Pro. I have learned to be humble and to work even harder than my peers to meet their (and my) expectations.
I developed a sense of lightheartedness. When people playfully make fun of my height, I laugh at myself too. On my first day of high school, a girl dropped her books in a busy hallway. I crouched down to her level and gathered some of her notebooks. As we both stood up, her eyes widened as I kept rising over her. Dumbfounded, she dropped her books again. Embarrassed, we both laughed and picked up the books a second time.
All of these lessons have defined me. People unfamiliar to me have always wanted to engage me in lengthy conversations, so I have had to become comfortable interacting with all kinds of people. Looking back, I realize that through years of such encounters, I have become a confident, articulate person. Being a 7-footer is both a blessing and a curse, but in the end, accepting who you are is the first step to happiness.
I am here because my great-grandfather tied his shoelace. It was World War I, and he was a Montenegrin fighting in the American army in France. His fellow soldiers surged across the field, but he paused for the briefest of moments because his laces had come undone. Those ahead of him were blown to bits. Years later, as Montenegro was facing a civil war, the communists came to his home. His village was small, and he knew the men who knocked on his door. But this familiarity meant nothing, for when they saw him they thought of the word America, stamped across a land where the poor were stripped of their rights and where the fierce and volatile Balkan temper would not do.
As his neighbors ransacked his home, his wife had thrust his good pair of shoes at him.
“Take them,” she had urged. “Wear them.”
But he did not, for he knew that he could not run. I also cannot run, but I wear my new shoes with great ease and comfort. I wear the secret guilt, the belief in equality, the obsession with culture, and the worship of rational thinking and education that becomes the certain kind of American that I am. None of these things are costumes. I believe in and feel them all sincerely, but they are not who I am. They may be a part, but I can say with certainty that they are not all.
I was born in Belgrade and Serbian was my first language, but these things seem nearly inconsequential when compared to the number of years that I’ve spent in America and the fact that English is by far my superior tongue. We visit every two or three years or so. Everybody is there, my entire collection of cousins and aunts and grandparents neatly totted up in a scattering of villages and cities, arms open with the promise of a few sneaky sips of rakia and bites of kajmak. I love them, I truly do. I love the flat roof on my grandparents’ home, the familiar sounds of the cicadas, the cows that they had when I was 7, and even the goats that I have not met yet. But they are not me, those things. They are something else.
Take a few bounds away from my immediate family, and I do not know anyone’s names. Somebody is always falling ill, or drinking too much, or making trouble for themselves. We speak of them sometimes, or pity them, but we do not go to their weddings or funerals. And yet I feel worried, not for them, but for myself. The Serbs and Montenegrins are people of complicated histories, and as I watch the documentaries my father made during the civil war there, I am gripped with fear and fascination. Those strange people can be so hateful. They cry and beat their hearts at the thought of Serbian loss in the Battle of Kosovo in 1389. This kind of nationalism makes me cringe. I do not want to be that way. But is there not something beautiful in that kind of passion and emotion? What does it say of me that I sometimes cannot help but romanticize something I know to be destructive and oppressive? This is why I worry.
They are not me, I tell myself, and I am right. But can they not be just a part? Can they not be a tiny sliver, or maybe even a sizeable chunk, comparable even to the American in me? Must I relegate them to nothing at all? For if those shoes, the ones my grandfather bent to tie in the middle of that blazing battlefield in France, are not mine, then why do I think of them so often?
Porter Corners, N.Y.
My head was spinning, my hands were bleeding, and my lungs desperately needed more air. The air was filled with the shouts of men dying and steel clashing with steel. To my left were two young men, no more than 18 years old, at each other’s throats. To my right an old man lay dead, missing an arm. My men were pouring out of the breach in full retreat. Death surrounded me as I summoned every ounce of my courage and shouted out that desperate ultimatum to my dying brethren, “Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more, or close the wall up with our English dead!”
Then reality came crashing down. “No, no you’re doing it all wrong.” I blinked, and instead of a bloody battlefield in front of me there was nothing more than a nearly empty auditorium. The sole occupant of the auditorium was a tall, bald, British man with a terrifyingly condescending demeanor. He was my Shakespeare coach. The most minuscule mistake never escaped his notice. “There’s no chance in hell I would ever fight for you,” he said. “Do it again.” I went offstage and tried to repaint the picture.
I emerged inflamed with the drive for victory. Every word I uttered was a strike against the French. Every heartfelt delivery of that carefully choreographed routine was ground gained at Harfluer. I fought passionately with that ancient text, but my coach cut me off again. “OK, better, maybe I would fight for you, but I wouldn’t die for you. C’mon pump me up, show me you care. Do it again.” I tried again. I put forth all my effort, but again he stopped me. I performed it countless times over, but with each rendition the quality exponentially worsened. Finally, he told me to stop. We had done all we could for today.
I stepped off stage and collapsed into a chair, angry and defeated. Reaching into my pocket, I found the small rectangular magnet that had been given to me by the head of the theatre department for “motivational purposes.” On the right side of the memento there was an ornate picture of The Bard in all his glory, and on the left there were six simple words: “To thine own self be true.” I knew why I was here. I was here to prove to myself that I could accomplish something momentous.
I was born with two speech impediments. I was a shy kid, with a crooked smile, who couldn’t pronounce any words correctly. Participating in theatre was the last thing anyone expected of me. Yet I wanted to sway crowds with my voice, make them cry, laugh and shout for joy. I was a terrified 10-year-old the first time I stepped on stage, and equally frightened moments before I finally performed at Lincoln Center. I walked slowly to my position full of fear, but when the spotlight hit my face, there was no trepidation, only a calmness and quiet determination. In that moment all the long hours of struggle fell into place. I had already accomplished what I had set out to do before my final performance. Just being there, having worked as hard as I had, made all the worry dissipate. It was just me and the light.
In that earlier moment of failure, I couldn’t see that light, or even imagine it. My brain was in a fog; I couldn’t think. As I sat there and the lights in the theatre clicked off one by one, the setting sun cast a beam of orange sunlight directly center stage. I pretended to watch myself perform in that light, pacing to and fro, shouting heroically to my men and charging headlong into battle, into victory. I looked back down at the memento. Then something clicked. Henry V never lost hope and neither would I. So I went once more to the stage.
Aliso Viejo, Calif.
Keeping my head down and avoiding eye contact, I tried not to attract attention. Drunken shrieks and moans reverberated through the darkening light of the bus stop, while silhouettes and shadows danced about. My heart pounding, I hoped I would survive the next 40 minutes. I had never seen the homeless at the stop act so deranged. But I had never been there so late.
It was well past sundown. A man passed out on the next bench awoke only to shout and drink. One screamed racial slurs and curses at another while they both staggered around. Another lacked an arm and had the most baleful gaze I had ever seen. As much as I tried to empathize and feel compassion, I couldn’t stymie a feeling of terror and revulsion.
After a few long minutes, a shadow detached itself from the opposite benches, came over and sat down next to me. Squinting, I took in her kind, wrinkled face. Ah, thank god, a kindred soul enduring the same thing.
“Missed the bus?” she asked.
“Y-yeah,” I mumbled.
“You certainly chose the wrong time to do that. Where’re you headed?” Her voice was scratchy, like a smoker’s, but she spoke well.
“Ah, homes. When I was a bit older than you, my home was a car. Can you believe that my car, an old Toyota, got 50 miles to the gallon? I could drive from here to San Francisco in one sitting.”
No, I couldn’t. The more we talked, the more I enjoyed her company and forgot about the craziness around me. She grew up in San Francisco and loved to travel. She loved helping people and went to church. Before I could learn more, a homeless man staggered up to me and asked me for money. I was so uncomfortable I relented.
My friend turned to me and advised, “Don’t ever give a homeless person money. Give them food. The stereotype is true — they buy drugs and alcohol. Look around you.”
Stunned and feeling naïve, I promised to do so. We talked more until my stomach rumbled and I remarked that I hadn’t eaten since lunch. Just then a bus arrived — apparently hers. She procured two hardboiled eggs from her pocket and offered them to me. I politely declined, and she went to get her stuff. But wait, why was she carrying eggs in her pocket? When the woman emerged from the other side of the stop, she boarded the bus with a sleeping bag and backpack. She was homeless! She smiled down at me, the bus left, and I sat there in quiet shock.
I explored the stop anew. Drugs, alcohol, missing limbs were no longer terrifying. Now, I saw the symptoms of sickness, a sad lifestyle that did no harm except to those who lived it.
The homeless lady probably has no idea what an effect she had on me. Because of her, I swore to look through the top layers of every situation. Now that I have a car, I never go to the bus stop, but I know its lesson, at least, will continue to take me places. I hope my expanded empathy and open-mindedness will allow me to feel at home in any foreign situation and connect with all people. Next time I might even accept a hardboiled egg straight out of a stranger’s coat pocket.
New York, N.Y.
Attempting to juke people like an NFL running back, I slithered my way through the tunnel to the A-Train on 42nd Street during rush hour. I often try to block out the hectic surroundings by isolating myself in music, but I can never seem to get out of the real life time-lapse. In photography, a time-lapse is a technique at which the frame rate is lower than that used to view the sequence, thus, when the sequence is played at normal speed, it gives the effect that time is moving faster, or lapsing. In a Manhattan subway tunnel, a real life time-lapse gives the illusion that thousands are moving around you in one single moment. Luckily, that afternoon, the frame rate was higher than the actual visual sequence.
The crowd shoved their way toward the platform as the screeching train echoed through the underpass. The doors opened and I pushed my way toward the already full train. After five seconds, I began to worry, fearing that the door would close and I would be stuck longer in the blistering, underground cave. The tall, brunette girl in front of me inched her way over the gap between the rusted train and the yellow platform, but one misstep turned my time-lapse upside down.
In slow motion, one vertebra at a time, she fell through the gap toward the tracks as the train doors closed. I slipped my hands out of my skinny jeans and reached under her arms as her head neared the platform. I hoisted her up and the sensor doors reopened as we entered the train. I threw my headphones around my shoulders, clumsily turned down my embarrassing music, and asked if she was okay. My pause had lasted for all of about two seconds. No one on the train noticed, not even her mom.
This isn’t a heroic tale or a love story, although I felt like it was at the moment. I felt like I had done something much bigger than me, and I also felt like this beautiful girl and I would naturally connect over what just happened. But this wasn’t the case. Instead, I checked on her, smiled, and around 10 seconds after my “lifesaving” moment, immediately isolated myself back into the music. I couldn’t bring out my inner-confidence. I simply stood there thinking of something to say, only to be left mute.
It’s easy to say what you want to do, but nearly impossible to bring yourself to do all those things. Life is about taking risks, not about conforming and hiding behind invisible walls. I tend not to struggle with personal adventure; I’ve jumped off 50-foot cliffs and rode the biggest roller coaster dozens of times; however, I do fear being judged and messing up when stepping toward the plate. Life’s too short to live with regret though. My life wasn’t dramatically transposed during this incident, but the things I didn’t do are a constant reminder to stomp on the shortlist of opportunities I’m given. For that girl, she was a vertebra away from not having another chance. When that moment comes for me, I don’t want to have any regrets. I look back at this brief moment with such rue because I feel that my time-lapse was flipped for a reason, yet I couldn’t grasp the opportunity.
The music was a place to buy myself more time, a place to quickly think about the next move. But the top-half of the sandglass was empty and the girl got off at the next stop, roughly 30 seconds later. My eyes were fixed on her as she left the train and headed for the stairs. The train began to move when she glanced through the window and mouthed the words, “Thank you.”
Chestnut Hill, Mass.
An eerie silence draped over New Orleans on a humid morning as the insects scampered back into their burrows. It was Saturday morning and I was still lying in bed, playing with the mood ring that my best friend, Anna, had given me as a good luck charm going into fourth grade. It was turquoise, meaning “tranquility.” However, as I focused on the footsteps downstairs, I could tell that both of my parents were in a rush and that Mama was nervous, which was rare. Something was different.
I ran down to grab breakfast, but the voice of the news reporter and the hurricane alert noise coming from the kitchen television distracted me. The words on the bottom of the screen read, “mandatory evacuation.” Papa told me to pack some toys for myself and for Rafa, my little brother. I figured we wouldn’t need much since there were so many activities in Houston, where we’d evacuated to before. This time, though, the highways were too congested to get there safely. Instead, we headed to Charity Hospital since Papa, a neuroradiologist, was on call. With our previous experiences of nothing but strong winds and lights-out for a day or two, my parents decided it would be best for the four of us to stay together.
We were assigned to a small room on the 14th floor with two tiny twin beds. That night, the rain pounded on the old windows, like an angry crowd getting more and more agitated. At 1 a.m., a fierce air pressure in the room created a sharp pain in my ears, awakening us, only a mere second before the windows imploded. Shards of glass flew around the room, forcing us to hide in a stuffy hallway storage closet. We huddled around the handheld radio’s static for the next five hours.
After the hurricane passed, I could tell Mama was distressed, yet she still managed to smile and say, “Te quiero mucho mi amor, todo va a estar bien.” The next morning, one of the doctors urged us to look out the window. I simply stood there, holding Papa’s sweaty hand, listening to the muddy waters from the Mississippi rushing in.
No one expected what would come next. In the basement, the emergency generators flooded, and the smell of rotting corpses from the morgue grew, getting stronger with the heat. In the lobby, people broke into the vending machines, stealing and selling the food. We didn’t have any clean water either, so showers soon became Purell sanitation wipes, and toilets became buckets to throw out the window. During the day, my parents were busy, so Rafa and I painted “SOS” on bed sheets and hung them outside. At night, we played cards, and I silently sat next to a nurse who thought about the dog she had left at home. No one knew if our homes or friends were okay, nor when we’d be rescued, but I didn’t cry. I was in survival mode.
A week later, we were rescued on swamp boats. That year, I attended four different schools. When it was over, I wept uncontrollably. Hurricane Katrina has challenged me. It has humbled and motivated me. I want to be a doctor, like the ones at Charity. I saw them work together, tirelessly, caring for anyone that they could, even dropping a joke here and there. I will never forget the man who gave me his secret stash of candy, or the night that we celebrated a birthday with a tuna sandwich as the cake, a Q-tip for the candle, and how they sliced it for everyone to share. We never gave up. I learned to appreciate everything and everyone around me. I became stronger.
As we have been approaching this year’s January 1 Regular Decision deadline, I’ve been concentrating on essays in my posts here. Today, I want to show you some more samples of excellent Common Application essays so that they might inspire you to a better level of writing.
First, let’s review the choices of topics the Common Application offers. Here are the prompts from which you may choose:
– Some students have a background or story that is so central to their identity that they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
– Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn?
– Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?
– Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content. What do you do or experience there, and why is it meaningful to you?
– Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.
These five prompts provide a wide latitude of possibilities for you to conjure an effective statement from the world around you or your personal life and circumstances. Let’s take a look at a quartet of excellent examples that have crossed my path.
Here’s one about a brotherly-sisterly relationship:
I vividly recall asking my mother why her waistline was steadily expanding. She took my hand, placed it on her stomach, and said, “Meet your baby sister!” I was six years old and family life had always been focused on me and my needs. Suddenly, I felt uncertain about my future. How would my life change? Would my new sister and I like each other? My father assured me that I would be a kind, loving brother, but I was not so sure!
Hours after Lauren’s birth, on a snowy February day, my dad took me to the hospital to meet her. I insisted on wearing my souvenir Burger King crown because I liked it, and thought that she’d like it, too! Amid all the fanfare and excitement, somehow there was a special gift from Lauren to me: a shiny red fire truck! As I opened my gift, I wondered how she could have known that trucks were among my favorite toys (although I didn’t ponder that too long).
Daily life quickly changed for me in ways I hadn’t imagined. Initially, my big-brother role was mostly that of helpful assistant, who dutifully gave her a bottle or held her. After I had been assisting with her physical care for some time, I volunteered more meaningful contributions, such as encouraging her to crawl and walk. To my surprise, I secretly started to enjoy my new role. I was getting unexpected pleasure from my increasing responsibilities and from my rising family status. No longer was I simply the older brother; now I was also her close friend, teacher, and coach. Her respect for me made (and makes) me feel more mature, capable, adult-like. I treat her questions seriously and trust that she finds the lessons I teach her from my experience helpful and relevant. I welcome the opportunity to mentor her and she shows me her appreciation.
Lauren has definitely benefited from my help, and I can see that our relationship is more mutually beneficial than I had anticipated. The lessons that I have taught Lauren have shown me the benefits of compassion, patience, communication, and understanding the so-called feminine “mystique.” When she broke her collarbone, I helped her with daily duties, such as getting dressed and carrying her books. I was pleased to be able to help her during this difficult and awkward time. I’m also patient with her when we’re active in shared interests like music, swimming, or tennis.
As Lauren matures into more of a peer, I value her feminine point of view. Despite our age and gender differences, my parents enabled a lifelong bond between us, and I foster that bond as we grow. I appreciate Lauren’s opinions about things. She feels sufficiently comfortable to comment on my friends (“they dress funny”), my clothes (“too preppy”), and my haircut (“grow it out; it’s too short!”). We laugh and sometimes get angry with each other, but we always resolve our differences, which serves to strengthen relationship.
Thinking back to the year she was born, I realize that my dad’s prediction was accurate. I have become the wise older brother, with a greater appreciation for the dimension and richness that a positive sibling relationship can bring. Our mutual support, trust, and love have brought out the best in me, and I know that the best is yet to come.
This one centers on what you can pull from seemingly mundane observations around you every day and in school.
There is a certain delight in feeling little. I mean little in the context of the word belittle. As negative a connotation the word has adopted, in a different frame of reference, it’s quite enthralling. An example:
I have an unconscious tendency to strategize my position in a classroom. I prefer the front-row-middle seat always.
An early Saturday morning earlier this month found me standing under the doorframe of my assigned classroom, staring at the redheaded girl who had stolen my seat. I spent 54 seconds telepathically explaining to her and her Starbucks coffee that THAT was MY seat. All I got back was static. Giving up grudgingly, I wandered to what seemed to be the absolutely most irritating seat in the entire room—middle-row middle seat. Amazingly, the tallest students of the class found it absolutely necessary to sit in the front two rows, creating a grade-A wall between any view of the front and me. Quite an advantage if the teacher threw erasers, though, but an unlikely possibility in this class—Quantum Theory and Relativity.
My teacher stepped in. Quick punctuated biography of Hayn Park: Born South Korean. Raised South American. Schooled Harvard, Moscow, Columbia. Specialty: quantum physics. Korean military service. Columbia again. His opening bit of wisdom to my class: “Stay in school, at least they don’t make you dig ditches.” He had me at Panama.
He opened class with the insanely attractive “Common sense doesn’t apply here.” His follow-ups were even more alluring. “Next class we won’t be working in three-dimensional space anymore, we’ll start with 3+1 space” and “If something travels faster than light, then your cause will happen after you effect” and my ultimate favorite, “Here’s how to make a black hole.”
It’s been six classes, and I now know what it means to have one’s breath taken away, to literally have the air stolen from my lungs by some magnificent invisible force. For two-and-a-half hours every seven days, I enter a world where boredom has no time to invade, where math is the only language, and theory the only absolute. One class a week to grasp knowledge I did not know existed, to learn that what I thought was impossible could be.
The seat I was forced to take that first day has ever since been my greatest blessing. From all four corners I am constantly saturated by brilliance. Angular people lopsidedly focused on a particular subject, speaking with fluency in that one subject. Vulcan at his forge. A distinctive pride arises when I realize I can call these my peers. A distinctive pride with an attached humility. Feeling small is a boon when I see all the room I have to grow.
During breaks, I listen to Hayn’s off-topic trivia about anti-matter and the like. The impact of his abridged soda-machine-time lectures is staggering. Instead of unproductively staring at walls on my subway ride home, I reread the notes of the day, redrawing some diagrams, reliving the class. In doing so, not only do I see the facts but I also comprehend their truth. Thinking is a gerund often spoken of but rarely done. Thought is the effect of my Saturday morning venture. Thought—the actual stimulation of new ideas and questions based on logic. Startling myself with what I know what I can know, and what I want to know.
I crave this in college and in life.
About a right of passage …
“If I cooked you, I’d be able to survive on your meat for over a month.” This was not the welcome I had expected on my first day at the British School in Phuket, Thailand. I wondered if my fellow students here would be as kind as they were in America or would they be rude and brash, as this insult implied? Would the curriculum be an academic challenge or an intellectual breeze? I had no idea what to expect.
At ten years old, I was 4’11” and weighed 185 pounds. As Dreem (this was his name) spoke his offensive words, he smirked. Almost instinctively, something snapped inside me and, although aggressiveness is not one of my traits, I rushed him and knocked him to the floor. I think he got my point.
Dreem did not look like other Thai kids. While he appeared to be Caucasian, his insult implied that English was not his first language. However, with his lightly colored skin and golden blonde curls, he certainly didn’t look Thai. As October arrived, Dreem’s various traits began to intrigue me and I wanted to know more about him. Whether he was eating by himself in the boisterous refectory or sitting in the corner of the library silently doing work, he was always alone. I assumed he didn’t have many friends because of his personality, but I decided to give him a second chance.
One particularly humid day, I approached him, choosing to ignore the possibility of harassment. He was sitting under a sala (a type of Thai hut), fiddling with a cell phone, when I interrupted him. That first chat was brief, but it planted the seeds for our budding friendship. We then sat next to each other in classes, ate lunch together in the refectory, and did homework together. We had become good friends. From bowling to jet skiing, we did it all together and were inseparable, quite a turnaround from that first assault on my weight.
After a year in Thailand, my family moved back to the U.S. I kept in touch with Dreem by weekly emails and occasionally caught him online with MSN Messenger. Dreem lived on Patong Beach, one of the hardest hit areas of the tragic 2004 tsunami. He didn’t survive. His house was flattened. I was crushed. I had never lost somebody that close to me.
Dreem’s death dramatically changed my life. I began thinking that life was too short and it would be a waste to do things I didn’t really want to do. Before Dreem, I never really devoted myself to working hard, but since his passing I now focus on what’s important and I hate leaving work unfinished. I want to be successful, not only for myself but also for Dreem. After I reflected on what happened to him, I realized that he never had the chance to do what he wanted in his life—to live and just “be.”
His memory burns within me and fuels my passion for life. My once short, stout frame has now grown to six feet tall and my then 185 pounds are now 170. I often wonder what Dreem would be like today. Where would he be? What would he look like? What would he be doing? I’ll never know these answers, but I’ll also never forget my friend whose name defines my approach to life.
An unusual place of contentment …
Believe it or not, the old phrase, “A woman’s place is in the home” is still alive and well in the scientific community, as the dramatic gender-bias study published last September in the Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences shows. Today, it’s “A woman’s place is not in the lab.” The path I have taken over the past four years has proven to me that women can be just as comfortable in STEM careers as they were 75 years ago as housewives. My place – where I feel most content – is definitely in the lab.
I work as a research assistant in the Department of Neurosurgery’s lab at Penn State’s Hershey Medical Center. I obtained this coveted position as a high school student, only through dogged persistence. Neurosurgery is one of the most competitive fields of medicine and proving to a team of world-class researchers that I could contribute to their complex, meaningful studies was no minor feat. I spent my first summer absorbing information and directly applying it to my diverse list of assigned tasks, aiming for mastery and efficiency. Since then, I have devoted the bulk of my life to research. Over the past two summers, I have spent roughly 50 hours a week in the lab. During the school year, I try to squeeze in as much lab time as I can. Ten hours a week is about all I can manage, but I appreciate the quality of the time I can spend working with my colleagues. Scarfing down snacks during the 30-minute commute has become a ritual I fondly associate with my anticipation of learning and productivity there.
My work focuses on animal research, immunohistochemistry, and biochemical studies involving amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). ALS is a disease for which there is no current effective treatment or cure. Research is critical in offering alternatives for patients who have few options for a high quality of life. My mentor, Dr. Amanda Snyder, has taught me far more than lab technique and critical analysis skills. She has instilled in me the importance of being tenacious, inventive, and passionate about researching such a debilitating disease. Dr. Snyder also demonstrates the importance of comparative studies. As a scientist, she is committed to meaningful, humane animal research. Through her example, I have become an active proponent of responsible animal studies, a topic I advocated in a TEDx Youth talk I presented during my junior year. In addition to providing a platform for activism, my lab position has also enabled me to shadow leading ALS specialists, who have further inspired me to follow in their path. Most importantly, though, my lab work allows me to meet ALS patients who might someday benefit from our clinical trials. These patients are the reason I dedicate my summers and free time to seemingly tedious duties and constant commuting.
Receiving my monogrammed white lab coat was a rite of passage for me. It represented the confirmation that I’ve entered a world where I can scrupulously investigate the delicate intricacies of the brain and nervous system. It’s a world where I witness firsthand the transformation of raw ideas, that were once a mere hybrid of curiosity and prior knowledge, into pending solutions for the tribulations that plague humanity. Eight researchers in my lab are female. These intelligent, passionate women are beacons of achievement in their respective fields. Their example both challenges and humbles me. They invest in my scientific future through every moment they spend with me. I hope that someday I’m able to repay that investment by further proving the point that women belong in laboratories and scientific institutions, where they can excel. I would like to banish, once and for all, the misguided mindsets about where a woman’s “place” should be. In the meantime, I’ll be in the lab.
I hope that these four examples will help you see some ways to express yourself in your Common Application essay. I’ll leave you with a piece of advice that has been especially valuable to me over the years. It’s about how to come up with great ideas about which to write. “To understand the invisible, look close at the visible.”
There are myriad topics in your world … right under your nose. Use them!
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